Mayoral hopeful John R. Connolly holds an 8 percentage point lead over state Representative Martin J. Walsh in a new Globe poll, which found a well of strong support for the councilor among newcomers to Boston even as the race remains deeply in flux.
The poll found that most voters are only now focusing on the campaign to succeed Mayor Thomas M. Menino and that both candidates are held in high regard, suggesting fortunes could shift swiftly with less than two weeks before the election.
Connolly led Walsh 44 percent to 36 percent in the survey, with the bloc of undecided voters still significant, at 19 percent. The results differed from other recent polls, which have shown Connolly’s lead shrinking as Walsh gained momentum in the glow thrown off by a sweep of endorsements.
In last month’s 12-candidate preliminary election, Walsh outperformed polls and finished first with 18 percent, powered to the top by a massive get-out-the-vote effort. Connolly led every public poll before the preliminary election but finished second, with 17 percent. Both advanced to the Nov. 5 final.
The Globe poll, by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, was conducted over six days and detected a subtle swing toward Connolly earlier this week. Pollster Andrew E. Smith cautioned that interest in the mayoral race remains low and that a survey this far ahead of Election Day was better at highlighting trends than predicting a winner.
“It is still close,” said Smith, director of the survey center. “What happens over the next two weeks is going to have a large impact because voters are just really starting to focus on the race. Organization is going to be a key in determining who wins.”
The poll of 465 likely voters was conducted from Oct. 17 through Tuesday by interviewers who called land lines and cellphones. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Voters are split on several key issues, including whether Walsh or Connolly would be the more decisive leader, who would be better at reducing crime and improving neighborhoods, and which candidate better understands people.
Connolly is seen as better equipped to improve city schools, the centerpiece of his campaign. Walsh is a longtime labor leader, and the survey found that likely voters believe he would be better able to negotiate contracts with city employees.
In the survey, Connolly had broad support crossing all demographic groups. He was ahead by 11 percentage points among men, and 5 percentage points with women. Connolly led among whites by 8 points, African-Americans by 10 points, and was essentially tied with Walsh among Hispanics.
Connolly performed especially well with voters who have college degrees and earned more money. Likely voters who moved to Boston in the last decade preferred Connolly by 26 percentage points. Boston municipal elections are nonpartisan and both candidates are Democrats, but two out of every three people who identified as Republicans preferred Connolly.
“If you are looking at the type of person he is attracting, it is more upper-income, more highly educated, and possibly more Republican,” Smith said.
Walsh’s support was more concentrated in his home neighborhood of Dorchester and nearby South Boston. He outperformed Connolly among voters aged 18 to 34.
The poll also suggested that Walsh has been helped by a series of endorsements, including the support of two of his former mayoral rivals, Councilor Felix G. Arroyo and John F. Barros, a former School Committee member.
“The endorsements seemed to have helped Walsh,” Smith said. “But it’s difficult to make too much out of this because we don’t have too many cases.”
People who voted for Arroyo in the preliminary election supported Walsh in the survey by 19 percentage points over Connolly. Barros voters preferred Walsh by 13 points.
But Charlotte Golar Richie’s endorsement of Walsh does not appear to have had the same impact. Golar Richie placed third in the preliminary election, but her voters appeared to be breaking slightly for Connolly, 45 percent to 39 percent.
Interest in the election remains relatively low, even though it is the first open race for mayor in a generation. Just under one-third of registered voters cast ballots in last month’s preliminary election. The survey found interest in the final election on par with the 2009 race when Menino handily won his fifth term by defeating former councilor Michael F. Flaherty. To become Menino’s successor, a robust get-out-the-vote operation will be important.
“What’s going to be key is dragging people who are moderately paying attention out to the polls,” Smith said. “The campaign with a much stronger organization is in a much stronger position to do that.”
Connolly’s repeated pledges to improve the city’s schools appear to be resonating with voters, such as Andrea Costello, a 69-year-old retired state worker from Roslindale.
“Education is really important, and I think Connolly is strong on that,” said Costello, who also thinks the councilor smiles more than Walsh. “I think the mayor of the city should smile and have a sense of humor.”
Edward Wagner, a 54-year-old from Jamaica Plain, said Connolly seemed stronger on charter schools, and he feared “a Walsh mayoral regime will bankrupt the city with concessions to unions.”
But Walsh’s labor pedigree is a plus to Peter Lydon in Dorchester, who said he was going to vote for Walsh because “I’ve been a union guy all my life, and it’s nice to see one of your own.” But the retired MBTA employee and truck driver said his support for Walsh was about more than labor.
In the Legislature, Walsh helped block an effort to outlaw gay marriage, a position that bucked the stereotype of the socially conservative Irish Catholic lawmaker. Walsh was excoriated for his effort by a priest speaking from the pulpit.
“He’s taken some tough stands along the way,” the 63-year-old Lydon said. "That says something about him.”
Laura Wheeland, of East Boston, also said she planned to vote for Walsh. The retired scientist has worked with Walsh on antipoverty initiatives.
“He’s a good guy,” said Wheeland, 71. “He’s helped a lot of people.”
The poll found one number that may prove daunting for Boston's next mayor. Menino is leaving office with an 83 percent approval rating, his highest mark since the University of New Hampshire Survey Center began conducting polls for the Globe in 2005. Menino’s astronomical favorability may explain why voters such as John Paul DiCicco of East Boston are having trouble deciding whether Walsh or Connolly should be his successor.
“It looks like a tie,” said DiCicco, a 33-year-old who participated in the poll. “There will never be another Mayor Menino again. They will never be able to fill his shoes.”Globe correspondent Melissa Hanson contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.